Sunday Read what it really means to be human

To return to a recurring theme that has cropped up a few times in this column in Frank Herbert’s seminal opus “Dune” there is a passage where Paul Atreides is tested with the gom jabbar. “Let us say I suggest you may be human.” He’s told by Reverend Mother Gaius Mohiam as he’s being tested and in that first, opening sentence is summed up the entire hope and aspiration of the human race.

We want being human to be different. We seek uniqueness in our humanity just as science advances and shows us that we are not unique. Everything we feel and what we think arises out of sensations that are reported by organs that we have in common with virtually every other living thing on the planet.

We may be at the top of the food chain, but we are animals, nonetheless. And this sentence now is problematic because it implies that we have special responsibilities at the time when we may be absolved of anything but animal behavioral traits.

Culturally, we use “animal-like” behavioral labels to justify behavior that breaks social norms and responses to it that violate humane considerations. We believe human exceptionalism is above such things when, in fact, quite the opposite is the truth. And we overlook the fact that animal behavior and animal societies can, and often do, exhibit better social values than we do.

We then use “intelligence” as the yardstick that justifies our abuse of animals and our own behavior towards ‘lower’ life forms, overlooking (again) the differences that make other life forms different, but not necessarily inferior to us.

Occasionally, we spend time in trying to understand what it is that makes us different because then we also hope to understand what it is that makes us special. Admittedly we are looking for “quick wins” here. We hope to find the reasons that can whitewash the cruelty we exhibit towards other species and give us the absolution we crave by establishing our naturally elevated position in the hierarchy of living things.

Yet human attributes like language and creativity are exhibited by other species. The more we look, the more we learn that our uniqueness is self-conferred, attributed without true justification. We are closer, for example, to mushrooms than we thought. And even an organism as seemingly inconsequential as an ant has the ability to surprises us with its intelligence and behavior. And even non-physical attributes like empathy and altruism are not the exclusive province of human behavior.

So, are we unique? Is there something that makes us special? To the individuals seeking to somehow elevate “I” to a point that answers yes to the question, the answer is sorry. You’re not that special after all. Yet, the illusion persists. The perception that somehow we are different, destined for greater things, capable of amazing thoughts and actions.

There is a paradox here at work. What makes us unique, what does actually make us special and allow us, functionally if not ethically, to rise above all other species is the one thing we are uncomfortable with and often find ourselves battling against: our ability to work collectively, as a species.

Our collective culture depends upon the transmission fidelity of the information we pass to those around us and leave for those who will come after us, to find. It is a simple thing underpinned by a tremendous neurobiological complexity. We were made to be curious and we were hardwired to be social. The combination of these two traits changes everything.

We’re not off the hook. Not by a long shot. While we may be more animal than any of us is comfortable with, we are also capable of things that stretch the boundaries of physical and mental capability to breaking point. Our intelligence, driven by our curiosity and fueled by our social and communicative capabilities, has made us; in truth, curators and cataloguers of all we see.

It is a position of responsibility that marks the one true characteristic we do not share with any other animal. To shirk that is to return to a more primitive past when we, like every other animal on the planet, struggled to find food to survive and fought to avoid being killed. The past is never a good place to return to. The future is always created by our decisions and our actions.

I know that you do not need my incredibly high-fidelity reminder to have plenty of great coffee at hand and something sweet to go with it. Donuts and cookies, croissants and chocolate cake, at a minimum. Have an awesome Sunday wherever you are.

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